When news broke that the first three victims of an unidentified killer in south-western France were all paratroopers of ethnic minority origin, the dismay in the camp of Marine Le Pen can well be imagined. When that same gunman then targeted a Jewish school on the outskirts of Toulouse, shooting dead three small children and a rabbi, that dismay must have been multiplied many times over. It would have been obvious to Le Pen, as it seemed obvious then to all of France, that these cold-blooded crimes could only have a racist motive, and that her party, the far-right National Front, would be tarnished by association. With France's presidential election barely one month away, this killing spree threatened to spell disaster for her campaign.
There is, of course, an enduring strand of racism that runs through the National Front – though these days the same sentiment is more often cast as hostility towards immigration or, more positively, patriotism. But racist and religious violence is a step too far for any party that strives to be electable in today's France. That the killings came so soon after Le Pen had finally managed to obtain the 500 signatures of elected officials she needed to register as a presidential candidate must have seemed a particular stroke of ill fortune. She had spent the past year, the first of her leadership, trying to lay to rest the National Front's reputation as France's "nasty party". Now, it seemed, that effort had come to naught.
The whole dynamic changed, however, the moment the identity of the Toulouse gunman began to circulate. Far from undermining Marine Le Pen's campaign, Mohamed Merah could almost have been a poster child for the very fears and threats that her party has traditionally traded on. If anything, the reality was even more extreme than any scenario the National Front would have ventured to depict.
Merah, it turned out, had been known to the French authorities. He had links with al-Qa'ida or an affiliate. He had received military training in Pakistan, been jailed for terrorism in Afghanistan, and been sprung from his cell by, it was said, the Taliban. He had chosen his first targets for donning the French uniform to wage war on Muslims, and the Jewish children supposedly to avenge the Palestinian children whose cause he claimed to represent. He shot all his victims in the head at point-blank range, filming as he did so. The state's forces of order had failed to stop him.
The way Merah and his crimes seem to fit so perfectly into the National Front's nightmare scenario for France, however, presents Le Pen with a dilemma. By harping too obsessively on this one killer, she could overplay her hand. Which may be why, the French media reports, she has insisted on making all public comments herself, and has couched them carefully. Insisting she will continue to campaign on the twin themes of Islamism and law and order, she has also insisted that most Muslims in France are not extremists and do not break the law. It would be wrong, she says, to stigmatise a whole group.
Such distinctions are typical of the way Marine Le Pen has tried to strip the more toxic elements out of the National Front since she took over as its president at the start of 2011. Now 43, she had spent a decade on the party's executive, essentially in apprenticeship to her father, Jean-Marie, the party's founder. By the time he retired to become honorary chairman, however, Le Pen (father) had come to personify the liabilities of a party created and dominated by one man. Its message was ossified; its most conservative, Catholic and xenophobic rhetoric out of date. His youngest daughter saw it as her task to bring the Front structurally and ideologically into the modern age – to make it a party that could win elections.
She set about her task with a clarity and sense of purpose that earned her both the grudging admiration of some opponents and a growing share of the vote. This week, before the Toulouse shootings could have had an impact, the Ifop polling organisation put her support at 16 per cent – only 1 per cent short of the 17 per cent her father won in 2002, when he shocked the French establishment by qualifying for the second round. (The same poll this week gave Nicolas Sarkozy 28.5 per cent, and the Socialist, François Hollande, 27 per cent.)
She has become a credible politician, who takes her place in the French electoral landscape, and won the leadership of her party in a ballot, fair and square. Over the years in the Front's upper echelons, she has developed a speaking style that combines passion with cool argument, but avoids demagogy. She is equally at ease chatting to small groups of mothers – she has three teenage children, including twins – or pounding the fields with the farmers who form the bedrock of National Front support. Her campaign uniform is a casual jacket with trousers or jeans. She comes across as confident and comfortable in her own skin.
It would be tempting to conclude that her combination of political flair and her determination to convince reflect her father's bull-headed stubbornness, leavened by the charm and independent mind of her mother, Pierrette. But there is more to her than this. In many ways, she is a Parisian of a certain class, brought up and educated in the plush suburbs of Neuilly and St-Cloud, and she has law degrees from one of the city's better universities. When she practised, as she did for six years, she joined the list of those lawyers prepared to represent poor clients without charge – and those clients included illegal immigrants. Her concept of the sovereign state comes with a sense of civic responsibility and respect for the law.
Whether for pragmatic reasons or from conviction, she has also distanced herself from the nostalgia for Vichy France that lived on, only lightly disguised, among supporters of her father's National Front. The Resistance, she has said, would have been more to her taste. And there is a steely and self-reliant side to her that suggests this sentiment might not be just for show.
That steel may reflect in part the status of the National Front as a party of not quite respectable outsiders, shunned by the political mainstream – the situation Marine Le Pen says she wants to change. Even today, National Front rallies feel more than anything like gatherings of the forsaken. But it could also be explained by untoward experiences in her youth, which included a bomb attack on the family home when she was eight and, when she was 16, the affair and subsequent departure of her mother, followed by her parents' very public divorce. As the youngest daughter, and still at home, a spirit of solidarity clearly grew that made her the father's daughter she remains.
Her realistic ambition in the coming election – as opposed to her stated desire to win – must be to match her father's qualification for the run-off in 2002. Until this week, the odds looked to be stacked against her.
A strong showing by Le Pen on 22 April could increase the appeal not just of the National Front in France, but of like-minded parties elsewhere. Were this to happen, Marine Le Pen would be hard put not to acknowledge a perverse debt: to a 23-year old French-Algerian killer, by the name of Mohamed Merah.
A Life In Brief
Born: Marion Anne Perrine Le Pen, 5 August 1968 in Neuilly-sur-Seine.
Family: The youngest of the three daughters of Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder and leader of the National Front (FN), and his first wife, Pierrette. Married and divorced twice, she has three children.
Education: Studied law at Pantheon-Assas Paris II University.
Career: Worked as a barrister 1992-1998. Elected councillor in Pas-de-Calais in 1998. MEP since 2009. Leader of National Front since 2011.
She says: "You say a multicultural country can live in peace. I don't think that can ever happen."
They say: "Marine is just as demagogic as her father and even more dangerous. He only wanted to be a player, to be noticed, to show off. Marine Le Pen wants to win and to rule." Alain Duhamel, political commentator